Monday, September 29, 2014


If curiosity were money, you'd be well off.  You have more curiosity than currency.  Sometimes the moment becomes so fraught with curiosity that you are almost stunned into a motionless stupor, wondering which book to pick up first, which search engine to consult, which line of which poem has the key, which short story or novel has the voice, which essay has the outcome.

If enthusiasm were money, you'd be considered a spendthrift, somehow made the subject of an intervention by one of your more rational and thoughtful components.  You spend enthusiasm on projects, on flowers, on dogs, on listening to music.  

You spend enthusiasm on pressing the delete button to send the wrong words to cyber limbo.  Then you come back to the keyboard or the pen and start again, taking out loans against tomorrow and your need to be op and alert at an early hour.

Can an aspect of a self turn in another aspect of a self, wanting in the bargain some form of conservatorship?  Can the rational aspects of the psyche accuse the others of collusion, a word often used in tandem with conspiracy.

These are not idle propositions.  They are based on a fascination for the noir and hardboiled and dimly lit stories and poems and music, but they do not define a man who is dark and cynical himself.  Among the more glorious sounds and harmonies you're aware of, there is the choral section of Beethoven;s Ninth Symphony, the part based on the poet Schiller's "Ode to Joy."

One of the more memorable dramatic experiences you've experienced in recent years is a podcast video segment, sponsored, you believe, by a bank in Portugal.  It begins with a single musician sitting in a town square, turning his cello.  A little girl approaches, puts a few coins at the cellist's feet.  He begins playing.  Soon, another musician appears out of the crowded square, then another and another, until there is the equivalent of a full symphonic orchestra, playing the main theme from the final movement of the Beethoven.  Soon, the musicians are joined by a full chorale.  Together, they send surges of joy bouncing off the walls, the people; the entire square is a stunning mass of performing joy.

In his way, in that symphony, the Ninth, Beethoven has taken us on a roller coaster ride, swooping down to depths of despair and gloom.  Then, as if to show us how we embody the conversation between the dark and the heights, he gives us that final, emphatic, glorious hymn to the resonant frequency we can achieve.  All we have to do is stop, open up the doors, then listen.

As if to emphasize his intentions, Beethoven, himself not a happy or outgoing man during his lifetime, now completely deaf, writes some of the most amazing string quartets the world has ever heard.  He, of course, heard the music within his interior self.  You cannot hear these string quartets--two violins, a viola, and a cello--without a radiant sense of connection with the species of which you are apart, friend and stranger alike.  At times, when you hear such music, you hear it with dearest departed friends and family.

All you need to get oriented are the first four string quartets Mozart wrote and dedicated to Haydn.  You could throw in some of the piano sonatas Haydn wrote.  You could throw in Beethoven's Violin Concerto for a lark, the Ninth Symphony, then those final dead quartets and with these, you'd have a language with which to begin understanding the vocabulary of story.  You would not think it out of the ordinary to like dark, murky story while still considering yourself in such battered terms as a romantic, a positivist, an optimist.

What is it about dark?  One thing is the promise dark brings of light, night's promise of day, Mozart's gut wrenching adagio from the Clarinet Concerto in A Major, moon's promise of sun, and all the other possible one-two-punch combinations that come to you as you consider these things.

Which gets us right down to where we should be in the sense of humanity having its dark, sometimes creepy, sometimes cynical and misanthropic aspects as offsets of romanticism, of reach, grasp, attempt.

Which brings us to exquisite gardens, say for an example, the Portland Rose Garden, and its opposing aspect, a clump of volunteered plant or shrub or flower, growing in a crack within a slab of sidewalk.

Which brings us to starting over when that activity becomes necessary.  For every time you rip a page from your note pad or press the select all button on a MS Word or Mac Pages document, then follow through with a swipe at the delete button, you are tipping your hat, nodding your head to the keepers, the pages you liked enough to take with you.


Behind the exultant, soaring feeling you get when your fingers are flying over the keyboard, and the project it going well, yelling out to you, "Keeper, keeper, keeper." there is an equally live feeling that comes from hitting the delete.  You've allowed yourself to fail, opened the doors to it, invited the neighbors in to celebrate.

Sunday, September 28, 2014

Humor Me

The use of spoken and written language in Real Time often bears an unpleasant resemblance to the use of firearms.  There are many responsible and thoughtful users of each, resulting in a spirited and vivid literature  reflective of communication, and an imaginative display of tools relative to hunting, marksmanship, and related sports.

Both language and firearms have the added ability to effect civil and political outcomes as well as to cause accidental and deliberate injury.  Laws such as those governing libel and slander have been enacted to provide protection from written and spoken injury.  Common sensical and social conventions also govern and suggest standards for the use of language.  Civil, criminal, and common sensical laws also obtain where the use of firearms is concerned.

Frequent accidents occur in the use of language and of firearms, incidents where feelings are hurt, reputations injured, and individuals and property brought in harm's way, sometimes to the point of maiming and outright fatality.

Beginning with the First Amendment and extending through statutes and conventions related to freedom of expression, an extensive corpus juris defines what may be said and published. Nevertheless, books and publications have a significant history of being banned at national, state, and local levels.

Within recent years, state and Federal laws regulating the sale and possession of firearms has undergone spirited revision and articulation, resulting in seeming ironies where some states allow open carry of weaponry in places where no weapons of any sort would be presumed necessary.

With equal but in large measure unnoticed irony, language in Real Time delivers painful projectiles at individuals, demographics, genders, sexual and religious orientation, racial background, and social strata with the same kind of velocity and potential for injury as a bullet from a gun.  

The irony is often compounded when the deliverer of such remarks expresses anger and frustration over the fact of his remarks not being seen for the humor in which they were intended.

Such anger and frustration work better in story because humor in literature is more often respected for the live ammunition it is, while in Real Time, the term "intended humor" is a code for a cover-up.

Dialogue in effective and memorable story proves itself to be one of the most powerful of dramatic weapons, expressing by subtext and attempts at evasion the things a character does not wish to say but nevertheless cannot help saying in some way.

Within the murky terrains of story, dialogue is the equivalent of open carry, regardless of where.  Its targets are hypocrisy, the moral high ground, and whatever vital lies of whatever culture or society are permitted to wander about.

Perhaps you push the matter a step or two beyond the boundaries set by some of the writers recognized over the years for the characters and the way these characters speak.  Names such as Ring Lardner, Dorothy Parker, Louise Erdrich, John O'Hara, Dennis Lehane, Denis Johnson, and Margaret Atwood come to mind, all of whom evoke the arguable presence of humor in their dialogue.  Add Mark Twain.  Add Geoffrey Chaucer.  Add Sinclair Lewis.  Add Joan Didion.  Add J.D. Salinger.  Add Franz Kafka.

Many of these writers had their works banned on one or more arguments of the moral high ground, which is to say they fired barbs at targets.  

If we pause for a moment to examine that great ox of story and analogy to see whose ox has just been gored, we see the underbelly of humor, bared for us to see and laugh at.  When dialogue sparkles to life, we see the things characters are at the same kinds of pain to cover up as some of the individuals in Real Time who are speaking at us, probing, sometimes with deft probes, more often with more cumbersome ones, probing to see, all in good fun, you know, if we have a sense of humor, so they can tell us exactly what they think of us.

Saturday, September 27, 2014

When Story Meets Inertia

We are standing in some port of arrival.  A subway station.  An airline terminal.  A bus station.  A train station.  Some conveyance has just arrived.  Now, we are waiting for a particular passenger to debark. We are here because of that passenger.

But wait.  Perhaps instead, we see a new arrival time posted on a nearby screen.  The individual we expect has met with a delay. The journey has not finished with us.  Not yet.

Because of extreme weather or traffic conditions, the conveyance has been rerouted.  The anticipated passenger must take a bus or a train or an alternate flight.  The Godot for whom we wait is stranded at an intermediate point.  The best laid schemes of conveyances and travelers have gone into chaos.

Even though we were not on the conveyance that was supposed to have delivered the anticipated person here, to this terminal, we have been caught up, if only in metaphor, by the mechanics of story.  Our expectations have been engaged.  We have been made to care about the person making the journey.

Whether we have deconstructed the matter or not, we have related somehow, on some level of emotion, to the unraveling of expectation.  We have experienced once again awareness of the ways in which things in motion can be derailed.  This is so because of the times we have found ourselves fretting in the uncertainties of what seems a great Cosmic limbo.

By now, we are well aware of the ease and precision with which our species can send a small object into orbit about a planet other than our own, then return to Earth at a precise point, one less than a single square mile.  

And yet.  We have the ability to arrange configurations of traffic so dense and clotted that movement of any sort within these configurations is all but impossible. 

Story--all story--yearns for destination.  Without a port of final delivery, story is at best a shaggy dog story, a narrative that has played with our collective and individual patience to the point of making us irritated.  In our irritation, we recall the details of the shaggy dog story, firm in our resolve to inflict it upon another victim.

You exaggerate when you suggest the resident streak of resentment within us wherein we begrudge simple, direct movement from Point A to Point B.  Even while you 're aware of the exaggeration there, you understand one of the principal dynamics of the dramatic genome.  Story equals anticipated destination in conflict with actual arrival at the destination.

Depending on its length, complexity, and variety of moral choices the traveler embarks upon, story is a matter of movement from a specific point to another specific point.  So long as it does not seem a mere random choice, the point of closure leaves us with the feeling of having at least come to the right station.   

Some writers, throughout the history of narrative, have left us, or at least some resident part of us, waiting still, our own expectations and unresolved yearnings still supplying shortcuts for the very Godot you mentioned some sever paragraphs earlier.

Seen from the inside of your own attempts at story or the wondrous outside when you travel the stories of other writers, inertia becomes critical.  A story in motion tends to stay in motion until overcome by a greater force.  Alas, that greater force often proves to be the uncertainty of the teller, getting in the way with burdensome details.

Story that stops moving has become narration held for ransom.  Story that loses movement becomes boring, ponderous, potential polemic or Hallmark greeting card sentimentality.  

Friday, September 26, 2014

Who's Watching the Store?

Much of what you've learned about the process you indulge when you compose centers around the awareness that someone has to be in charge.  In much network television and many  of the cable TV dramatic series, that individual is called the Show Runner.

You have a Show Runner because of the seniority system rather than any sense of the democratic or political approaches.  Your Show Runner got the job through ignorance.  At the time your show Runner came aboard, you knew nothing about the term or the concept.  

You knew little enough beyond the constructs you'd picked up from one of the books you've had most of your life.  The book was written by a man named Stanley Vestal, who, even though he published it with a prestigious venue, a university press in fact, used a pseudonym so as, you suspect, not to mess with his own career as an academic.  Few things make you feel old, but that is one thing that does.

From this book and that way you have of going about as though you were a magnet, causing things to stick to you, whether they were useful things or not, you knew that stories had to have conflict--"Shoot the sheriff in the first paragraph,"--rising action, denouement, and closure.  You knew stories should also have suspense and if there were no suspense, there should be tension.

This was more than enough to engage your teen-aged self, give you days and weeks and years of writing and rewriting things as though you were following some recipe from the back of a corn meal box.

Difficult to say when your reading habits shifted gears and you were no longer reading for the pleasure of reading, instead reading to see how some of "them" did what they accomplished and how to avoid what some of the "others" did that you found to be discomforting.  Probably around age nineteen, when you came into possession of a convincing-although-false identification attesting you to have been twenty-two.  This meant you could--and did--go to places where writers hung out, places where you began to absorb things that were more apt to come from men and women who wrote every day than from books such as the one on writing you had at home.

By this time, you'd had more than one classroom writing teacher, most of whom were quite nice and sincere, you admit from this remove.  But so far as you could tell, none of them were publishing things, not until you made the move to UCLA, where you found a man who published with some regularity in The New Yorker and who published books via Alfred Knopf.  You were also aware of a wide swath of differing opinion between most teachers and most working writers.

You were still some years from giving the merest thought to teaching, which means you did not come to the conclusion that you were going to teach the way you'd wanted to be taught, not until your second week as a teacher at USC.

You were well along the way to having a mentor, one who not only wrote and published but read your material, made suggestions, and collaborated with you on a run of television plays.  From about that time onward, you gave scant thought to rising action, denouement and suspense, beginning instead to get more familiar with that aspect of you who took over when the time for composition came.

By the time you realized you had a Show Runner who, in turn, had a semblance of a personality and agenda, you were also aware of other editorial-type voices in there, many of whom had a wish to contribute.  This realization was only one of the reasons you sometimes feel the necessity to leave your studio, which is quiet and comfortable, thereupon  to seek the ambient noise and high-jinks of coffee shops.

There are some voices, friends really, you don't mind listening to.  Your two mentors, Rachel and Virginia.  Perhaps Dennis Lynds,  For a certainty, Digby Wolfe.  Although you were more likely to make suggestions for Barnaby Conrad than he to you,there are times when you hear him and listen.

You on occasion hear your agent, wondering if you need a particular passage you like.  The twenty-odd years in which you co-hosted a workshop with Leonard Tourney open the door for his voice as well.  The fact of so many of your inner voices coming from sources long dead or, indeed, from writers you never met in person, have little to do with the matter.

Sometimes your Show Runner wants to take the day off, meaning you're left with the precarious issue of whom you should heed.  A large part of the matter comes down to trust.  Sometimes, it is a shouting match.  You want to yell "Shut up.  Can't you see you're distracting me?"  

But you're too busy to stop, too busy, trying to get it all down.
Who's watching the store? as your father was wont to ask.  We won't know until third, maybe fourth draft.  If then.

Thursday, September 25, 2014

Call Me Whatever You Wish, But Please Don't Call Me Normal

Your favorite stories are those in which otherwise likable individuals are pushed beyond their likability, where egos declare blood feuds upon their alter egos, where sanity and lack of reason trade places, where logicians and philosophers, in the midst of arguing whether the glass is half empty or half full begin throwing glasses at one another.

When the moment arrives, often close to the beginning of the story, when the rules of narrative convention, are called into acrimonious dispute, you feel your pulse engage and take sides with the participants.

A patient in an examination room nods at relief when the doctor enters.  "Doctor,"  the patient says, "I'm so glad to see you.  I have these difficulties."

The expectation is  for the doctor to offer a heart-warming response.  Instead, the doctor says, "Wait.  You think you have difficulties.  Let me tell you, you don't know from difficulties."

Alright, this is your fanciful version of your favorite reasons for the beginning moments of story, but if you look closely, you will see how you stand in relationship to one of your own more conventional assumptions.

You favor one story in which an embittered man becomes an even greater monster than the monster he yearns to take down.  This is, of course, Captain Ahab.

In another story, a young man, because of a few acts of kindness to a wretched convict, is offered a chance at a life of opportunity and growth, only to have it undercut by a manipulative old crone.  This is the story of Pip, in Great Expectations.

What about this one, in which a young man, attempting to revenge himself on a father he feels is abusive, takes the extreme step of turning into a beetle.  Franz Kafka, the author, fascinates you because of a simple discovery you made reading about him, his resolute fondness for the Yiddish theater.  You find it difficult now to read any Kafka without suspecting his overriding intent to be satire.

Michael Chabon seems to work this transformative mischief on every outing, but you became convinced when you read The Yiddish Policeman's Union, a murder mystery of consequence set against the background of the failure of the state of Israel, its subsequent move to Alaska and, as the novel begins, our discovery that Israel has failed there as well.

When you begin to look at the patterns of forceful, abrupt change within certain types of story, you experience epiphany.  Such remarkable and stunning reversals as, to name only a few more, Karen Russell's Swamplandia, and Richard Ford's Canada use comparisons between extremes to complete the equation in which the insane appears quite sane, the sane emerges as daft beyond recognition.

You've only begun compiling the list in recent years, but the fact is, it was in place long before your appearance and will extend well beyond your times, all because of the combative and conflicting natures of sanity and its opposite number within our own sense of sanity and its opposite number.

Wiser individuals than you have observed occasions wherein the inmates had dominion over the asylum, but you harbor the belief there is some particular genome wishing to tie the tin cans of inevitability and balance to the genetic material.  There are individuals who become so fearful of evolving intelligence that they become attracted to those extreme ruling politicians who advocate a step backward on the evolutionary escalator.

Whatever this says about you, mad individuals in the literal sense as well as in the fictional have long attracted you. At this stage, you cannot be sure of your own evolutionary trend.  If you awaken some morning after a night of uneasy dreams to discover you'd turned quite normal, you are earnest in your hope you'll have the good graces to feel disappointment.  Think of all the things your could do with madness.

Wednesday, September 24, 2014

Writing Bernie into the Script

You've had a great deal of time to think about Bernie, which you have done in many ways and under the most extreme of existential circumstances.  There is every reason to believe you owe your life to Bernie, to believe you would not be here now, writing these words, were it not for Bernie.

In some gesture of cosmic respect, you call him Bernie, a diminutive more affectionate than not for Bernard, whose middle name was Marvin.  Sometimes you catch yourself wondering how long it would have taken you to learn to call him by his initials, B.M., which you;d have made sure everyone about him would understand was a profound tease for bowel movement.  

Having been spared the reality of having a big brother, you spent time with the dynamic of calling him B.M., his losing his patience with telling you not to call him that, then leaving some sore spot somewhere on your body, half affectionate but half considered the necessary evil of keeping a kid brother in place.

You never got into such contests with your older sister, whom you adored, the one notable run-in coming about half way into her marriage with a man you grew to dislike at first, then disrespect, then move back to the point of being indifferent to him.  You may well have reached a similar point with Bernie.

Keeping in mind the constant of your parents having a knowledgeable grip on the subject of birth control, you can also conclude how unlikely you'd be here on this late day in September if Bernie had lived.  He'd have been enough.  A boy and a girl.  Bernie and Pennee.

Without giving it much thought, if any at all, Bernie gave you a shot at being the second kid.  He did it because of his death of SIDS at the approximate age of six months.  Sometime later, you seemed like a good idea.  Later still, after all the principals are out of the picture, here you are.

Try as you might, you can't write the matter of who you are and how you go about being you without any added thought.  At the extreme least, Bernie's sudden death made your mother more watchful, protective, and cautious with your upbringing that she might otherwise have been.  

With Bernie in the picture, your response to him may have been near what it has been to CW, your way of looking at Conventional Wisdom.  In any case, your lifelong relationship to CW has been in many ways that of a younger brother, at once contentious, a tad fearful, combative, envious if not outright jealous, and not to be forgetful of familial love. 

You want a name like BM to call CW, which is the same as saying you intend to irk it, get under its skin, play pranks on it, and, after you began to devise ways to do so, write stories in which CW or something that represents CW to you, is left taking a pratfall.

Try as you might, you cannot become the complete anarchist, not when there are things about conventional wisdom you admire.  So you watch with care, hopeful of discovering places where you might poke fun, focus burning rays of ridicule and satire.

The way you see it, Bernie would have been focused and successful, his college career not as much a gallimaufry as yours, the likelihood great of his terminal degree being a PhD. or LLD or perhaps an M.D.  And you?  You would not have become the kind of failure you strive to be, rather a failure who stopped trying, stopped taking the kinds of risks you take, all in service of being fearful of abandoning CW.

You have taken the money and run, which is to say you've begun picking on and teasing at CW as though it were your older brother.  You have one story underway in which one brother has deliberately bought into a retirement home environment in order to be on the same campus, once again, as his older brother. Even in your imaginative dreams, this is not going to be a well-negotiated reconciliation.

How many stories await in which the Bernie you never knew in your lifetime has become your lifelong big brother, with you stuck, wearing his hand-me-downs?  And how much more thanks will you come to recognize you owe Bernie these days?

Tuesday, September 23, 2014

What a Difference an __um Makes

If you are essaying a topic or concept, hopeful of wrangling it into a penned-in animal rather than a loose maverick, there may be some accommodations available for you beyond convention.  Such an accommodation could be the argument you make for drawing out the word "moment" until it becomes "momentum."

There is at least one example (if not precedent) to be found in extruding the word "date" into its singular form, "datum."  You could also throw in for good measure and to fog up the argument a bit the shift in numbers from simulacra to simulacrum.

Momentum comes to you in effect a cocked fire arm, with a shell in place at the ready, that tiny, resident lethal addition of the terminal __um, owing its definition to the physics description of moment as an entity with quantity and distance.

Momentum may be seen as the effect(s) of one or more moments, arriving at a destination such as the temporal one of now or the physical one of here, delivering a quantity of consequence.

A story is said to have momentum when it oversees delivery of a linked group of moments, delivering a single or multiple package of emotions.  Some of the dramatic FedEx and UPS deliveries are abstracts like closure, justice, romance, and pay-off, all words which, when given proper use, will provide some emotion for the reader or viewer to take home, as it were, to savor, to cherish, to mull over, even to the point of experiencing some life-altering adjustment or understanding.

No wonder some cultures are so nervous about the prospect of women reading and of children, learning to distinguish among logical tools and fallacies.  Someone who has read, has paused to question and consider, is someone who may not take the party line as it has been passed up the generational ladder.

Go ahead, ask your question about which emotion in fact stands all by itself, with no help from others.  Would you say anger?  If you were too quick to answer yes to that, might it be a good idea to go back to unravel some of the cables of emotion, starting with anger.  Is all anger the same?  Is it free of amounts of other feelings?  Are you sure?  To be even more blunt, do you find it possible to regard feelings as single-braid entities?  

If the issue is anger, isn't it possible to conclude some measure of fear resides within the mixture?  And what about the reverse; doesn't being in the condition of fearfulness for long periods of time evoke some form of impatience or anger at the presence of so much resident fear?  

While fear has clear advantages as a warning against impending danger or disaster, and often can serve as energy for important relevant activity, too much fear may as well produce apathy, lassitude, and passivity.

There you are; momentum is the parade of events past a receptor of emotion. Does that sound at all familiar?  When you consider it, you are yanked back by the scruff of the neck into a class called Electric Shop, back in Middle School.  Electrical current, you were asked to consider, is the flow of electrons past a reference point.  

From this consideration, you were led to consider the rate of speed at which those electrons proceeded, their density, their polarity, and their pressure.  What would a Middle School boy do with such information?  How would it influence his thinking?

Not many years later, the boy in question was beginning to look at the movement of events in a story or essay, past the point of his reading them.  With the progression of such observations and thoughts as these, no wonder the boy grew to the point where he felt it safe and fair to say the more intense the events, the more fraught with emotional upheaval their consequences and, therefore, the greater the likelihood a momentum has been established.

Story requires the continuous passage of moment past a point of reference, which is the point of NOW in a story.  Such a linked procession is called dramatic momentum.  If a story does not have momentum, you are correct to ask what, at that particular time, does it have.  You are even proper to ask if the lack of momentum is a soft spot, the writer's equivalent need to a rubberized supportive gesture.

More usual than not, you discover, is the lack of dramatic moments in which the actors behave, their inner lives drawing them to a screeching halt on the terrain of self-pity, self-doubt, and abusive process, directed in an inward manner.

Story becomes momentum incarnate, a relevant and significant parade of individual moments in some kind of emotion-linked parade past a point into which the reader may peak.

More and more dramatic momentum in the twenty-first century has to do with the characters being delegated more authority to carry the story into a tangible momentum, where the reader/viewer forgets about the author/director.  The reader is in effect "inside" the story, experiencing it as the characters do, complete with their assortment of responses to one another.

With your response to this dramatic momentum, you notice a sharpening of taste.  Your story palate is being educated.  The stories in which you get close enough to the characters to eavesdrop on their thoughts or make judgments of your own, as you would and do make on actual persons, has been forged.  The more you begin to see your alignment with those writers who allow you some say in the interpretations of the life and experiences of their characters, the more your own momentum picks up momentum, begins to move without you realizing, without you giving so much as a shove.  Ah, wouldn't Sisyphus have been pleased to have you along on his shift?